EMERGING ENTERPRISE 2022

Summoning data from sensors anywhere

Homegrown tech solutions company Ackcio wants its sensor monitoring systems to be the go-to option

WHILE their academic backgrounds are in science, Ackcio co-founders Nimantha Baranasuriya and Mobashir Mohammad took inspiration from magic when christening their technology solutions firm in 2016.

Ackcio was derived from the fictional word "accio", a spell from fantasy franchise Harry Potter that summons an item to the spellcaster, says Dr Baranasuriya, who is also the firm's chief executive.

In a similar vein, the company's wireless technology allows its monitoring system to "summon" and read data from sensors in industrial environments, such as construction and infrastructure sites.

Traditionally, workers must check the readings on such sensors manually, which could result in human error, says chief technology officer Dr Mohammad: "But (our work) is all automated, which is more reliable and precise."

Attaching devices to sensors so that their data can be remotely read, as Ackcio does, is not a new concept. What sets Ackcio apart is the terrain where their system can be applied - in particular, deep tunnelling sites, such as those for underground train construction, notes Dr Baranasuriya.

With Ackcio's long-range technology, devices - known as nodes - that are further away can transmit their data to other nodes, which then pass this on to the master device that receives data, called a gateway.

Ackcio's systems may have as few as 10 or as many as 150 nodes at each site, with each node being able to connect to up to eight sensors, depending on the node's model. In contrast, competitors usually require their monitoring devices to be connected directly to the master device.

Dr Mohammad likens the Ackcio system to "a mesh Wi-Fi system, but on a much larger scale".

"It's like Google mesh on steroids," he added, referring to the tech giant's Wi-Fi network.

Streamlining the process

The pair met at a lab in the National University of Singapore while pursuing their doctorates. Keen on finding market applications for their research, they joined the first Singapore run of the Entrepreneur First programme, from September 2016 to March 2017. The programme, which sees individuals come together to create start-ups from scratch, was backed by government-owned Singapore Innovate.

The company has continued to receive firm support from venture capital firms and government-backed arms. Its latest funding round in September 2021 was a S$4 million Series A led by Singapore-based venture firm Atlas Ventures, with participation from players such as Wavemaker Partners, Enterprise Singapore and AccelerAsia Ventures.

During the programme, Dr Baranasuriya and Dr Mohammad realised that the latter's lab research on wireless network technology could serve the niche sensor monitoring market, which has an addressable market size estimated to be in the billions.

"Monitoring is carried out by very few companies because it's so specialised," Dr Baranasuriya tells The Business Times. "At the time, in Singapore, there were only around nine companies who could be potential clients."

Locally, Ackcio's systems have been deployed in large scale construction projects, including a build-to-order Housing and Development Board project in Hougang and the East-West MRT line extension towards Changi Airport Terminal 5.

But Dr Baranasuriya says that the plan had always been "going out of Singapore".

Since its inception in 2016, Ackcio has gained clients in 36 countries, and opened a subsidiary in the Canadian city of Calgary in 2021. Its overseas projects range from monitoring rock movement at the Northparkes mine in Australia, to keeping tabs on the embankment around a highway in Flemhude in northern Germany.

Expanding overseas also uncovered new industries where their system could be used. "Getting into mining was accidental," quips Dr Baranasuriya. A client had approached them for their products first, and it was only after deployment that they realised the system worked in mines as well as it did in construction sites.

"We don't do any customisations. It's the same set of devices we sell," says Dr Baranasuriya. "But our products are compatible with different kinds of sensors, so the system takes care of the data collection."

Dr Mohammad adds: "Our system is quite industry-agnostic, so we get surprised by how (the clients) use our products."

Plug and play

As with many technology companies, the Covid-19 pandemic has both helped and hampered Ackcio. Dr Baranasuriya says that that industries had already been moving towards automation, leading to increasing interest in their work - but the pandemic spurred the rate of adoption.

Dr Mohammad adds: "Construction and mining industries were traditional to begin with and were lagging behind, so they had the largest gap to fill when things started going digital."

However, pandemic-prompted supply chain disuptions resulted in manufacturing delays, which the firm is still trying to iron out. Manufacturing operations were also moved from China to Singapore in February 2021, to ensure quality control, according to Dr Baranasuriya.

Despite the delays, higher sales have contributed to the company's stride towards profitability. "Next year, we expect a full year of profitability," says Dr Baranasuriya. There are currently no plans to list, as they are still focusing on growth, he adds.

Next in the company's line of sight is a new industry: oil and gas. The plug-and-play nature of Ackcio's system should make it compatible with any kind of sensor, including those in oil and gas, say the founders.

"(These companies) need the data to keep these projects safe and we want to provide the technology that aggregates this data," notes Dr Baranasuriya. Another round of funding is slated for early next year to work toward this goal.

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